During her recent Australian lecture tour, Julian Raxworthy and Cassandra Chilton took the opportunity to ask Dorothée Imbert some questions regarding the much neglected topic of Modernist Landscape Architecture:
Kerb: Modernist landscape designers are thought of primarily in terms of their use of plant form. What made these forms particularly modern?
Imbert: I don’t think it should be thought of only in terms of plant form. You could see the so-called cubist gardens as extremely geometric and formal and contrived where the plants had to be a certain size in the container: where they are used almost as a sort of surface. They used ceramics in some containers and mirrors and the plant was filling in the same shape as the ceramics; either vegetable or mineral were in the same balance: it’s not like the vegetable was supposed to grow more than the mineral. So these you could see as being modernist or modern maybe because they fit within the specific time frame which is basically the decorative arts fashion frame: the ’20s and the 1925 Expo.
Kerb: Do you think that modernism then can be thought of purely in terms of its historical time frame?
Imbert: No, I think those particular gardens belong to a specific time frame which is the one of the zig-zag shapes, the triangles, which you didn’t find before, nor after actually, or very little after. Those are very formal and they’re also… they have a very particular geometric shape which belongs to its time, but there is also the other side of modernism which is a relationship to landscape and to spatial landscape which is not that of those gardens. Those gardens are basically flat or almost flat as in those pictures. Those pictures [from The Modernist Garden] are from the 1920s and 1930s. That other landscape could go on for much longer. The problem is that there is very little written on that. There was a book by Christopher Tunnard which was called Gardens in the Modern Landscape which is trying to do that approach of what is really a modern landscape and I guess function would come into it.
Kerb: In looking at the forms, the cubist forms, even the Burle Marx forms, what makes those actual forms modern? Is it only their relationship to the past that makes them modern?
Imbert: I think that’s one way to look at it. You know that breaking off from the past. What I think is more important is the perception of those forms; the way Burle Marx plays with not only the geometric shape, the biomorphic, the amoeba, coming from modern art like Hans Arp or a Noguchi or Brancusi, no, not Brancusi, but you know these kind of shapes. It’s not only the shape but it’s the way he kind of plays with foreground and backgrounds, creating relationships in the space which is I think more modern, although you could say that the French classical garden did that too with the thing in the foreground being very articulated.
Kerb: Perhaps modernism is too much seen in its historical relationship. You have to consider what it is that it is rejecting. The use of distance and optics for instance by Le Notre, is bound to have been absorbed in there somehow.
Imbert: I think what you have to see also is not just a movement in itself but a movement which has come with a whole time frame: what was going on in economics. There has been a major revolution in peoples way of living. Nobody has an estate like Versailles or Vaux any more, so what can you do in something about a hundredth of the space they used to have. But it’s also a reaction against the previous garden style which was not at all formal, the picturesque or the French deformation of the picturesque which is even worse. I think it’s difficult to define a modernist garden; it makes me very ill at ease. It is the title of my book because it was the simplest thing we could come up with which would broadly cover all these factors but it is hard to define a modernist landscape because it is hard to define it and not compare it with architecture and I don’t think it should be compared with architecture.
Kerb: To what extent did this plan dominate the design process and if it did, did it represent a change from previous design records?
Imbert: Completely. Those were architectural gardens. The biggest criticism of them was that they didn’t think about volumes. They thought about plans brought into the third dimension, extruded or tilted but not thinking about what a plant may be. They are cubist but they don’t deal with plants, the most fantastic aspect of the fourth dimension.
Kerb: Presumably you visited some of these gardens. Would you say that the 2D design generation interferes with the 3D experience of the space?
Imbert: I think so. I should say that I didn’t visit many of them because most of them are gone. They lasted ten, twenty years before they were destroyed. One of them was recreated and it’s the one for the Villa Noialles at Hyeres, which is a triangular one with the chequer board. That saw and once you get into it, it is very powerful. It’s like getting into a showroom; you have floors and walls and nothing in between. It works fine from three viewpoints. From above it’s best, as a picture, with the triangles of colours; from below it’s OK, but what was very important in this garden was this triangular thing which gave this false perspective with the chequerboard pattern which looked like a Renaissance perspective, shifted by the triangular walls and had the pair of orange trees which framed the view and then this thing was converging to the top and at the top was this rotating statue which was very foreign; it was this kind of whimsical vanishing point which kept turning. think this framing of the view was very important and now they don’t have the statue or the orange trees any more and you just have this nice little triangular garden whereas before it was the set up of the view; it was much more framed, much more calculated and choreographed. But defi- nitely walking through it is like walking through a stage. You realise all the shallowness of the space, the shallow depth. It’s just very flat.
Kerb: If one compares for instance the work of Burle Marx and Guevrekian, one notices two particular stylistic differences which you have already mentioned: the cubist and perhaps the Picasso/Miro sort of thing. Did these arise do you think from different interpretations of the modernist agenda or merely from favoured forms or influences?
Imbert: Well, you know, Burle Marx worked in Brazil and had a completely different set of plants. mean in Brazil you can watch the grass grow. It’s such an amazing vegetation, you can plop something down and it grows immediately and within a week you have something else. He’s a real gardener; Guevrekian was an architect who was asked to do some furniture, to do some interiors, to do some buildings and also to do a couple of gardens, so it’s very much the plan though I think Burle Marx is very much influenced by plan vision also although he deals with a real landscape certainly.
Kerb: If you look at his Copacabana foreshore
Imbert: Yes, but I still think he deals with landscape on plants whereas Guevrekian probably just said… well his choice of plants revealed his architectural bias, you know like tulips. Architects love tulips. They’re classical. They’re vertical. They come in all colours. Also Guevrekian was Persian. I mean was Armenian but moved to Persia when he was very young and was there for maybe twelve years and I think I there is something of the Persian garden in his view of, his enclosed thing, the tulips, the mosaics, the water. So it’s the walled garden, the retreat, not the great expanse of undulating landscape of Burle Marx.
Kerb: Discussions of modernist architecture generally conclude that the movement was social rather than aesthetic and that the form was a natural by/product of this. Would you say that this is true of landscape and to what extent did that agenda inform the designs produced?
Imbert: It is an issue, but it’s not an issue in the gardens that I showed yesterday. Most of those gardens were for rich people who can afford to have five gardeners working on these precious little things.
Kerb: That was stylistic…
Imbert: That was very stylistic as opposed to social, but it is an issue later on. Those [gardens] are within the 1920s and they disappear by the end of the ’20s and by the 1930s you get a new agenda which is one of public parks which goes on until, basically, World War II and those are very interesting because you still have this kind of…they’re not cubist; they can’t afford to be as radical as those: those are to be used by people. Hygiene and sports come in to regulate the structure and they’re very nice. There are some very nice examples of those in Paris. Then after that, after World War I, there is reconstruction and social housing and landscape turns completely away from form, becomes a way of having these clumps of things. But at least in France, landscape, even up to the ’60s was quite interesting, I mean landscape for social housing and public parks; that’s basically the social issue. But I mean, again it is difficult to compare architecture and landscape. It is difficult to dissociate modernist architecture from the fact that there were new techniques, new means of construction.
Kerb: At the same time, plants have always been plants but there’s obviously some sort of change in design agendas…
Imbert: Gardens, as opposed to landscape or parks as a landscape, I think are ultimately decorative, but there is a function which changes, you know with the War and people growing things in their gardens for use and using their garden as a spatial outdoors apartment. I think that’s important. Although the plants change, its not construction, the construction means.
Kerb: Is there a contradiction in the rejection of ornament and yet its manifestation in the garden and is the garden then obsolete?
Imbert: Probably, in a certain way. I mean this is ultra decoration. It’s like the people who commissioned their gardens had their clothes designed by artists, their cars matching their clothes, their garden matching their interior. It’s interesting that as they were doing that they were commissioning modernist villas which were unornamented and kind of pristine, but inside they would put their collections of impressionist paintings, so you always have this kind of tension I think. The garden is not at all progressive. Garden design is always behind; I think that’s basically the problem, no matter what. I mean even Le Corbusier came 15 or 20 years after painting, so there is always this lag.
Kerb: How was the modernist vision of the landscape any more equitable than the Olmstedian one - the idea of the park being the way to clean up the city and bringing open space to everyone compared with Corbu’s visions which were similar: the building resting above the ground etc., yet ultimately the only forms that were expressed in modernist things were decorative and associated with ornament, so it bypassed its own agenda in a way.
Imbert: Yes, but the whole field of [landscape design] was behind [architecture]. You have to wait for the parks to come up with it and those maybe are trying to be more social, although there is an underlying factor in all those public parks. - don’t want to quote Olmsted because I know - very little about his stuff, but all the public parks were usually to control the masses as opposed to just giving them a nice urban space as a way to keep them quiet.
Kerb: Moving on to America, landscape architects such as Eckbo, Kiley and Rose seem to stylistically embrace this modernism. However, did the idealism of European modernistic vision fit in with American capitalism?
Imbert: I think Eckbo particularly was more idealistic than the Europeans. He didn’t do any of those things for rich people; I mean he did of course, design gardens for rich people but he had a much more progressive agenda than [the Europeans] did. He, in fact, refused the traditional kinds of gardens, the formal design of visual composition and proposed a real spatial garden and dealt with function and where trees were supposed to be. It was sort of formal but they diverted, I think, the French formalism and moved off beyond this book which is on the 1925 Paris Exposition, the Guevrekian gar- den etc., but I think they knew about it as images; you know they thought it was interesting. The zig zag came out of it. They were just kind of ideas. The French formal garden was Le Notre, the Versailles stuff. I think, well Kiley moved into more architectural circles; he got in with Saarinen and later Kevin Roche. He was always the architects’ favourite landscape architect so he didn’t have to hassle for any- thing. He did a few expensive residences for rich people. Rose kind of moved out of it: he wrote some very important articles (Pencil Points/Progressive Architecture) which made quite an impact on the profession. Eckbo had this whole thing with the Farm Administration doing workers’ housing: landscaping for all those houses during the depression when all the workers came to California to pick grapes and oranges and was probably a ‘Commie’. He probably had trouble with the McCarthy administration. So he was certainly not marred by capitalism, but maybe reacted to it, so don’t think that would be a problem. He certainly had a social view into the landscape.
Kerb: It’s interesting that modernism had an agenda where they could have these ideologies which somehow conflicted with their clients yet their style was so ‘in’ that that subverted the whole process in a way.
Imbert: Well I think that their idea was that to get the masses you had to start at the top, who could afford to and had the intellectual capacity… I mean if you look at the Villa Savoie today it looks completely mind-boggling: this is an object from outer space. I don’t know if it would get built today; maybe it would but this is 1929 and Corbu would go for these things for the intellectual elite who happened to be the ones with the bucks. So you’re right, it is a strange way to promote this mass thing; going through the rich guys. This is kind of contradictory.
Kerb: Would you say that lessons have been learned from the Modernist tradition. In The Language of the Modern, Steven Krog argued that landscape architecture would not be thought of as post-modern because it effectively missed modernity. Would you agree?
Imbert: No, I think there is a very post-modern landscape. Martha Schwarz is the best example of this kind of total imaging. I mean — I don’t want to — she’s a friend of mine. She’s a very nice person but it’s like form is over concept is over function is over everything. It’s skin-deep. I mean it’s totally post-modern, so I don’t agree with Krog at all. I think it’s just that the modernist landscape was undocumented and I think it perfectly existed and Eckbo and Church were very important characters. I don’t think it’s fair to say they bypassed it completely. I think there definitely is a post-modern landscape where ornament is or image is; I mean photographs of these landscapes are almost more interesting than the spaces they create. I mean it’s like the images in the glossy magazines — it’s like everything is catering to it.
Kerb: Compared with criticism of architectural work, where there is this interest in theory and actually looking at results, journalism concerned with landscape work is usually purely descriptive…
Imbert: That’s true. I think it’s contemporary landscape which is at fault. If you look at literature on the English landscape, John Dixon Hunt certainly is someone who is not shallow in his criticism of landscape and literature and poetry. I think it is a problem of the current landscape criticism. It’s like magazines. What is the best thing you can find in magazines? In America there is nothing. There is more in Cultural Landscape, in Landscape Journal and periodicals like that. Landscape Architecture magazine is like something for contractors; its nothing else; it’s totally shallow. I think the profession is in trouble. I don’t know how it is here but you see it in students. It’s a very different profile of people who go into landscape architecture studies [compared with architecture]. In America, you know we were in the same building but it was like totally differ- ent worlds. First of all they didn’t talk to each other and the people who went into landscape were kind of mellow, easy-going, soft and they left at six o’clock at night and came in early in the morning, while architecture was like up till four in the morning, working hard, playing music and drawing. I think it’s also the position of the landscape architect in the design field. It’s not only studies; it’s not only criticism; it’s where does the landscape architect fit within the project? You know, the architect is the prima donna and does the building and then the landscape architect comes along and shrubs it up. It’s like this kind of site thing which is a little frustrating.
Kerb: Is ecological design really within the scope of landscape architecture or is it merely an act of deferring from the act of actually designing? Should ecology be a technical question considered in all design?
Imbert: I’d love to see it as part and parcel of the landscape design profession but it seems that every time I see something which is supposedly ecological, it sounds really stupid because why shouldn’t the landscape be ecological, it seems well it’s nice but it isn’t design. It’s just understanding the plants and the ecology and it’s fine but it’s not design. I don’t know if it’s the designers’ fault that they don’t know enough about that[ecology]; that there’s a need for someone to come along and do the ecological part but I hope it would be possible to put together the two people and try to work out something, because there’s something to be learned from it but it’s still not design. It’s like people who read Design With Nature, that McHarg thing which ruined a generation of landscape architects. Berkeley’s completely lost because of that. There’s no design development; there’s nobody.
Kerb: If you look at Landscape Australia for instance, when Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette was built, whatever we may think it’s still a piece of design, but it was criticised because it ignored the historical context. All of these traps that landscape architecture sets for itself stop it actually designing.
Imbert: Villette is pretty awful actually but not for those reasons. I think the buildings are very nice. I don’t think it is a park. It looks like it’s closed. The follies are not used, well some of them are… but they’re a very nice red! It’s amazing that a park like that would be built by a city. It would never happen in America. Landscape has to be the most conservative thing. We’re still in the neo Olmsted realm. Even the Parc Citroen (once used to be the construction site of Citroen cars) was empty for years and was given to the city and they built this park. An amazing piece of landscape and that it was built was quite fantastic.